Our kids have pretty much grown out of singing the road trip blues-“Are we there yet? When are we going to get there? I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I’m bored. I need to go to the bathroom.” Masters of catastrophe, kids are! One of the kids will say, “I’m starving.” I will reply, “Kids in Africa who haven’t eaten in days are starving. You on the other hand, had a sandwich fifteen minutes ago. You are not starving.” Or else, a kid will say, “I’m dying of thirst.” And I reply, “That is highly unlikely but don’t tempt me.” One of our kids, who shall remain nameless, hit the jackpot with the most woeful statement and had us all laughing. After several rounds of complaints, this one said, “I’m dying to death back here.” Dying to death! That could be the mantra for catastrophizing.
We’ve tried banning the expression “I’m starving.” A little mindfulness about the power of language can’t go astray. Of course it’s not just kids who excel at catastrophizing. I found a small lump on my body recently and within minutes I had imagined myself in months of chemo and radiation. I pictured myself bald. Then I day dreamed my death bed scene telling the kids how much I love them and kissing Meg for the last time, wondering if she will remarry. All of this anxiety was created over what turned out to be a boil. It seems it is easier to lance a boil than it is to dissect the workings of the human ego.
Catastrophizing does not serve you well. At best, it leaves you depressed and anxious. At worst it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. If the worst never arrives, you worried for nothing. If it does happen, you endure it twice. Catastrophizing tells the stories that pessimism wants to hear to justify its perspective. Catastrophizing is sitting in traffic and imagining that the meeting you are missing is the beginning of the end of your career. Catastrophizing is looking at your child’s report card and imagining that he will never get a college degree. Catastrophizing creates stories with very little basis in reality, feeds the stories with evidence from unrelated situations, spirals in negativity and eventually becomes irrational and closed to all reasonable conversation.
We’re pretty good at it as a society as well. Every time I hear people talking about America sliding down the slippery slope to socialism, my mind goes back to the kids in the back seat telling me that “they’re starving.” Do you remember the hyped up drama about “death panels” a few years back? Some people seemed to think that President Obama would personally be visiting nursing homes with a pillow tucked under his arm. When public conversations become irrational like this, not much is achieved.
We’ve seen this many times before, on both sides of issues. The passage of the Civil Rights Bill in the 1960s had its own controversial path. Many people became convinced that whites would be enslaved in this new world order. Now, 40 years later, we take the Civil Rights Bill for granted and very few people are worried about a black takeover of the country. I can’t help wondering if in 10 or 40 years time, there will be a universal health care system in America and we will all look back and say “what was all the fuss about?” That’s often the way with catastrophizing. As the predicted dates for the end of the world come and go, and as all the anticipated anxiety fails to materialize, we look back and smile at our over active imaginations.
Catastrophizing is often built around pre existing conditions like fear of change or self doubt. It’s another cunning ploy from your ego to play small and hide behind fear.
There is a fascinating story told in the Bible about the Israelites floundering in the wilderness, and they are imagining the worst. They shout to Moses, “We’re dying to death out here.”
Here is the actual text-
They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” Exodus 14:10-12
You can’t really blame them for thinking they are dying to death. They couldn’t flick ahead a few pages to see how it turned out like we can, or watch Charlton Heston save the day in the movie The Ten Commandments.
In the face of their catastrophizing, here is Moses answer to them.
Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” Exodus 14:13-18
Now this is interesting. Was Moses being optimistic? Because we know the story, we know that it took 40 years, rather than one day, for the Israelites to find freedom. Maybe Moses was not talking about their physical deliverance, but an inner freedom that was theirs to claim that very day.
Moses offers three antidotes to catastrophizing, all based on negating fear.
1. See alternatives. Your imagination is powerful. So use it to conjure up multiple scenarios. Then remind yourself that any of them is possible. Even your most positive predictions may fall short of reality.
2. Stand firm. Be patient and allow the situation to unfold. Don’t be too quick to form conclusions about good and bad. Bad can very quickly seem better once worse happens. Good can easily be forgotten once better happens. There is always more to come. Sometimes good things change so that better things can emerge. Stay open because everything that happens makes you wiser and stronger.
3. Be still. In other words, stop swirling in fantasy about unknowns and dwell in this moment where everything is as it is.
For the most part, it’s a mind game and it’s a game you can win.Your mind functions like a committee. The committee is constantly bombarding you with different voices and opinions. One of the members of the committee is catastrophe, the pessimist who wants to remind you to expect the worst. Maybe the voice of catastrophe is simply echoing the voices of people who haunt your life with their negativity; a teacher, an ex or a business nemesis. They all have their perspective, and they all bring something worthwhile to the table. But none of them holds all the truth of your life.
There is a still small voice that stands firm in the midst of all the other voices. This is the voice of your true essence, your highest self that transcends and includes all other perspectives and roles. It’s a small voice, not because it lacks power. On the contrary, this is your most powerful voice. It’s small because it has no need to raise its voice in anger, or shout irrational obscenities in meetings. It’s small because it waits to hear the answers to its questions and keeps an open mind. It has no predetermined ideas as to how the future will play out; preferring to urge you to be all you can be in each moment, a work in progress.
It’s a still voice, not because it lacks conviction. On the contrary, this is your most powerful voice. It’s still because it doesn’t fight reality. It’s small because it has nothing to prove and compels you forward with gentle persuasion. It states its case calmly and respectfully, and genuinely looks for win/win solutions.
The intent of spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, contemplation and so many other practices is awareness so that you know which committee member is ruling your life at a given moment. With this awareness, you can choose to appoint the still small voice as the chair of your mind’s committee. As chair, it can affirm and embrace each voice for what it is, but not be ruled by any one voice. Spiritual practice helps you to tune into the still small voice and live your life with contentment and skilful means.
In this moment, stand firm and be still, all is well and all will be well no matter what the circumstance.